Re: Science Article (Roberts et al.) and Science Editorial

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Tue, 27 Mar 2001 18:09:15 +0000

On Tue, 27 Mar 2001, Michael Eisen wrote:

> This is the reason why we have organized our "boycott". Journal publishers
> are a very conservative lot. We are hoping that economic pressure, rather
> than good will, will force a change in policy.

But to make the boycott work, you have to get enough authors to be
willing to sacrifice their preferred journals to make a difference. I
would be delighted if that were possible, but all the more skeptical
because it is proving so hard to get authors to do something that
DOESN'T require any sacrifice and will achieve the same goal

I think authors can be educated to realize that self-archiving calls
for no sacrifice or risk, and is guaranteed to achieve the goal
(of freeing the refereed literature); I doubt that they can be
persuaded that sacrificing their preferred journals is without
sacrifice, hence likely to achieve the goal.

> journals are concerned by the growing number of people who have agreed to
> shun non-compliant journals and that they are looking to craft positions
> that will satisfy them. So long as we respond successfully to their current
> set of unacceptable proposals, I think they will move rapidly in the right
> direction.

I applaud your efforts. But what really needs changing is journals'
copyright policies, which are a perceived deterrent to self-archiving
refereed papers (even though they can be circumvented completely

> Three years ago we tried to organize [a self-archiving] effort in biomedical
> sciences and it was not well received. Although there were many reasons
> why this proposal did not fly, I think the main reason was a widespread
> reluctance to adopt anything that seemed to be circumventing peer review.
> I, of course, understand that self-archiving and peer review are not
> in conflict, but I worry that this is still a difficult sell to many
> biologists.

It sometimes takes time to educate people about what is in their own
interests, especially when it involves any significant change in
habits. The physicists figured it out early (but even their
self-archiving is growing only linearly, so would take a decade to free
their entire refereed literature).

We know exactly what researchers have in mind when they hesitate about
self-archiving (actually, I have counted 22 prima facie worries
<>, but the
most prominent two are): (1) peer review and (2) copyright.

The answer to the worry that self-archiving "circumvents" peer review
is so simple that it is irrefutable (because tautological). We are

(It is the conflation of this with the additional self-archiving of
earlier embryological stages of the paper, in the form of pre-refereeing
preprints, that is the source of the confusion, but it can immediately
be dispelled and that should be the end of the matter for a rational
thinker. It's just that the confusion has to be dispelled over and over
again before it becomes common knowledge.)

(I might add that the task of dispelling the confusion is not made
easier by the Simon-says/Simon-does confusions needlessly added by those
physicists and mathematicians who self-archive and also have a "theory"
about what they're doing, if their theory is that peer review is
unnecessary! Because the fact is that all those self-archivers are still
submitting all those papers for peer review, and publishing them in
peer-reviewed journals, exactly as they always did. It is just that, IN
ADDITION, they are self-archiving them -- both the unrefereed preprints
and the refereed postprints, thereby freeing them for one an all
online. The rest is just conjecture. Simon says, Simon does. Let us
emulate what Simon does and ignore what he says...)

Copyright worries are the other big deterrent, but they too can be
dispelled once one realizes that there is a completely legal way to
self-archive even under the most restrictive of copyright agreements,
and here it is indeed a matter of "circumventing":

I am not sure which biomedical effort of three years ago you are
referring to, but if it's Harold's 1999 ebiomed proposal, in my opinion
it failed precisely because it was NOT a self-archiving proposal (for
refereed postprints), but rather the proposal that you are promoting
now (journal publishers should give their contents away online or
authors should switch journals).

If there was an earlier pure self-archiving initiative in the biomedical
sciences, well then you gave up on it too early! After all, I've been
preaching it since 1994 and I'm only now beginning to make some headway
(thanks to the Open Archives Initiative and interoperability):

This the right time to promote self-archiving in earnest, now that
distributed, institution-based archiving is ready to complement
centralized arXiv/PubMedCentral style archiving, all integrated by the
glue of OAI-compliant interoperability. Authors should not be boycotting
and waiting to see whether that will work; they should be
self-archiving, which has face-validity, and we know it will work, now.
At the very least, they should be boycotting (if they wish to make the
sacrifice) AND self-archiving (which entails no sacrifice at all).

> In recommending alternative publication options for the people who support
> our initiative, we will include self-archiving, along with related options
> that we hope will take.

I hope self-archiving will not be represented to authors as an
"alternative publication option," for that is precisely what gives them
the wrong idea that to self-archive is to circumvent peer review!
Self-archiving is a sacrifice-free, risk-free SUPPLEMENT to
conventional publication, not a SUBSTITUTE for it.

> One option we are considering is the production of
> something like a GPL for scientific manuscripts which scientists would
> attach to their manuscripts to remove any copyright restrictions associated
> with publication.

I'm not sure how an author who has signed an over-restrictive copyright
can remove the restriction after publication by attaching a GPL, but I
agree that there is a legal way to circumvent even the most restrictive
copyright agreement and hence to self-archive legally.

> > (iii) Creating new journals, without track-records, to draw away
> > submissions from the noncompliant established journals, is another
> > long uphill path, and again it is not at all clear why authors
> > should prefer to take that path, renouncing their preferred
> > established journals, when they can have their cake and eat it too
> > (through self-archiving).
> We are planning on starting new journals on our own. One would be a
> high-profile, editorially exclusive journal with a very prominent set of
> editors and publishers (drawn from our organizers and supporters) and the
> second would essentially be a series of branded self-archives.

Establishing a secure niche for a new journal, whether on-paper or on-line,
is always a risky enterprise. I can't see how the way to free the
contents of the established journals will be by drawing them into new
journals, but I certainly wish you the best of luck.

I cannot wish you luck with the "branded self-archives," though, because
that again sounds like a new form of self-publishing, rather than the
self-archiving of refereed, published papers that it needs to be in
order to free the refereed literature. There is only one thing that is
even more risky than trying to establish a new peer-reviewed journal,
and that is trying to establish a new form of peer review. I hope the
"branding" technique will get a lot of testing, to see what quality it
produces, before it is proposed as a viable alternative. (This too has
been a part of my criticism of the otherwise commendable Varmus proposal
all along: We are trying to free the peer-reviewed literature from
access/impact barriers, not from peer review! Peer review reform is
another agenda, with a long empirical testing period ahead of it,
whereas the time to free the literature is now [in fact, yesterday!],
and the means that will achieve it for sure is self-archiving.)

Stevan Harnad
Professor of Cognitive Science
Department of Electronics and phone: +44 23-80 592-582
             Computer Science fax: +44 23-80 592-865
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton

NOTE: A complete archive of the ongoing discussion of providing free
access to the refereed journal literature online is available at the
American Scientist September Forum (98 & 99 & 00 & 01):

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Received on Wed Jan 03 2001 - 19:17:43 GMT

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